This renowned discourse was uttered by the statesman Pericles, with the actual copy being produced by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War, at a public funeral for the fallen Athenian soldiers after the first year of the conflict. The purpose of this speech was to extol the virtues of the Athenian citizens in order to raise moral to continue the struggle. Pericles’ sentiment behind his words was certainly very real and powerful, but it should be taken into consideration the version that is available was written by someone else from memory. In addition, Thucydides, a noted historian, possessed a special fondness for Pericles and there may be additions or subtractions in the text based upon his own emotions.
What is apparent is Pericles used this speech as a vehicle to promote democracy, another institution he firmly believed in, to raise fervor amongst his fellow citizens to engage and to continue this war because of a sense of purpose by appealing to their pride and to honor the slain by classifying their actions as heroic. Therefore, they did not die in vain. It was for the glorification and preservation of Athens.
This speech is intensely political. Of course Pericles believed in what he was saying to his people, but chose his subject matter, as well as his words, with a clear intention: to keep fighting Sparta, no matter what. The customs, mores, culture and political system of Athens had no rival, so it was the responsibility of the Athenians to not only make sure it endured but flourished by banishing the rival that threatened to snuff out their existence. As such an elite society, the people had an obligation to uphold their principles despite hardship. Since the major premises of Pericles’ speech definitely incorporate themes of statesmanship, it intensely political, but it must always be kept in mind this is Thucydides account so the wording may not be without his own embellishments. Also, there is some discrepancy as to what speech this is, as Pericles did deliver another public eulogy during the war, or if the two speeches were combined.
- Mackin, James A. “Schismogenesis and Community: Pericles’ Funeral Oration.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 77, no. 3 (August 1991): 251-262.
- Monoson, S. Sara, and Michael Loriaux. “The Illusion of Power and the Disruption of Moral Norms: Thucydides’ Critique of Periclean Policy.” The American Political Science
Review 92, no. 2 (June 1998): 253-276.
- Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War.